His name is “Shogun” — he’s Japanese, after all — and most people in the Thai underworld run when they hear his name. He’s an enforcer for various underworld concerns, tough enough to get any number of girls to drape themselves over him at the snap of a finger, but strangely indifferent to female flesh — maybe because he lives in a town where girls, and human life in general, are as cheap as water. He’s also ostensibly a man of the moment, but from time to time he feels the faint gravitational tug of nostalgia drawing him back home. Then he remembers he came to Thailand to forget himself, to forget the son he killed through his own neglect and self-importance, and to tackle problems that he can solve by beating with his bare fists.
He is also one of Kenji’s childhood friends, and so as you can imagine he’s more important than he realizes in the 20th Century Boys universe. One day Shogun rescues a dying man from a hotel room — a cop, a Japanese cop — and hears him babble a few too many things before he chokes on his own vomit. Drug overdose? No, murder — he’s seen a few too many such things with his own eyes to be fooled. But what did this guy mean when he said “the Friends have taken over Japan”? Before he knows it he’s run afoul of men who make the local gang bosses and drug syndicates look like rank amateurs — but the Friends have never met anyone like Shogun before, either. Irresistible force meets immovable object, and everyone heads for shelter.
The most impressive thing about 20th Century Boys is, now that I think about it, the same thing that impressed me so about Naoki Urasawa’s Moster and his also-ongoing Osamu Tezuka crossover/collaboration Pluto. It makes side stories, diversions and subplots out of things that in other manga would be centerpieces of the action. Urasawa has just that much imagination and invention to spare. In stories with this much sprawl and ambition to burn, it’s all too common to see things on the margins remain, well, marginal. All of Shogun’s story in volume 4 has been executed with the care and attention — and emotional involvement — of all that also happens in the story’s main line.
Speaking of which, volume 4 contains a lot more than just Shogun’s story. When Shogun returns to Japan, that’s used to bring us back to the main storyline and find out what’s happened to Kenji Endo since he went quite literally underground. He’s shacked up in an abandoned subway station with some of the homeless folks he befriended earlier in the series — a wanted man, a terrorist no thanks to the poison-pen campaign instigated by the Friends. The only way he’s able to move around is by donning a huge, silly-looking mascot costume and hiding in plain sight — but that won’t last forever, and he knows it. Not that it’s meant to, since it’s now 1999 and the Friends are ostensibly preparing the attack that will bring the world to its knees. With time running short, Kenji and Otcho track down a possible lead — the daughter of a scientist pressured into working for the Friends. She’s in one of those seedy sex clubs where the girls dress up as nurses or high school students, and the way she misleads Kenji gives new meaning to the term role-playing.
I write this after having read both volumes 4 and 5 of the series, and most of the really over-the-top praise I have in store I can only uncork when talking about the next book proper. But let’s face it: 20th Century Boys is all of a piece, and every volume that comes out is further proof it’s a cornerstone of any serious manga collection.